If a kid is struggling with learning school material, it’s tough to know how to help. Parents try to offer guidance, saying, “Make flashcards,” “Listen to some classical music,” or “Ask Google.” What might make the biggest impact, though, is to have them change roles.
Nate Kornell, an associate professor at Williams College who researches how learning works, writes in Psychology Today that the one phrase which has gotten his own 13-year-old daughter Juliet to study more effectively is: “Prepare to teach.” When she’s trying to understand something new, he asks her to look the material as if she’s an instructor preparing a lesson. The technique isn’t a new one – the Feynman Technique, coined by Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, is well-known for the basic philosophy: “If you want to understand something well, try to explain it simply.” That’s the way we did study groups in university, by taking turns standing in front of a white board and trying to describe the Manifest Destiny or cellular respiration in plain English. What makes the phrase work is that we all naturally know what steps to take in order to teach others, and it helps us narrow in on the most important points in what can seem like an overwhelming amount of information.
“If I told Juliet, ‘Focus on meaning, think about why things are the way they are, organise your thoughts, and be prepared to answer questions,’ it wouldn’t help her,” Kornell writes. “She would not know what concrete steps to take. Neither would I.”
You can ask your kid teach you the material, but you might lose a bit of the effectiveness if, say, you’re a plant biologist and your kid is trying to teach you about photosynthesis. They know you know. The good thing is that today’s kids understand how to talk to a general audience, thanks to all those hours of watching kids on YouTube. They have seen people their age explain maths and art and how to make glitter slime to other kids. Have them pretend they’re explaining the topic on their own show. They will know what to do.
Don’t worry if at the end of their lesson, they smile and say, “Don’t forget to click and subscribe!” (You do not need to click and subscribe.)